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Absent Friends

Joan Davies heads to Oldham Coliseum for Alan Ayckbourn's tea party from hell

Published on February 4th 2010.

Absent Friends

Alan Ayckbourn is one of our most prolific and at times most popular playwrights. Criticised by some as having a narrow, middle-class focus and a period feel, he nonetheless tackles timeless issues and makes you laugh out loud. For although Absent Friends is a play about death – real, tragic death and the death of love – it is very funny. Dead funny, in fact.

This entertaining play where nothing much happens allows Ayckbourn to explore the way love and dreams can die, throttled by everyday life rather than drowned by tragedy.

Diana has invited a group of old friends and their spouses to tea in the hope of ‘cheering-up’ Colin, whose fiancée has drowned. But when he appears, Colin is surprisingly cheerful. He’s met the 'perfect person' and seems intent on improving his friends' lives rather than the other way round.

This entertaining play where nothing much happens allows Ayckbourn to explore the way love and dreams can die, throttled by everyday life rather than drowned by tragedy.

It is set in the 1970s in a ‘lounge-diner’ with the ubiquitous serving-hatch. So much of the Seventies looks contemporary that you could momentarily think it is taking place today – until Diana lights her cigarette while peering into a visiting pram.

She is strongly portrayed by Kerry Peers; her mix of assertiveness (Diana is married to the most successful of the men) and her vulnerability (he’s probably cheating on her) is perfectly captured. Samantha Giles successfully eclipses her natural grace to play Diana's good-hearted, good friend, Marge. Her performance didn’t need quite such a grating voice to be convincing.

Steve Pinder, once Max Farnham of Channel 4’s Brookside, is wonderfully believable in the later scenes as Paul, Diana’s husband. He delivers one of the best pieces of sofa acting I’ve seen. The sofa holds no charm for the character of John who is played as a bundle of nervous energy by Dominic Gately.

There’s a welcome absence of stereotypes and while not one of the 'friends' is really dreadful, each has a hand in contributing to the misery of others.

This play was first performed in 1974 – a time when women were challenging their traditional role. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch had become a best-seller and the UK was about to pass the Sex Discrimination Act (it was still within the law to pay men and women different wages). Ayckbourn does not directly address these issues, but the play is suffused with the idea that women might not find happiness in the drive for motherhood alone.

Colin Richmond’s design and Nikolai Foster’s direction bring a freshness to the production. The audience respond enthusiastically to the six actors as they keep the dialogue sharp and the action convincing. This successful revival is well worth a look.

Absent Friends, Oldham Coliseum, 28 January-20 February, £5-£18.50, www.coliseum.org.uk

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AnonymousFebruary 17th 2010.

A hilarious production, I went to see it with my mum and my boyfriend and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Dominic Gately and Samantha Giles are fantastically funny, my advice ... pop along and see it before the end of the run!

AnonymousFebruary 18th 2010.

I totally agree, the production was fantastic, plus because I am under 26 I went for free as part of a current offer at the Coliseum.

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